“Ayin Tachat Ayin,” “An eye for an eye” (VaYikra 21:24), is a well-recognized Pasuk that is often associated with justice in its cruelest form – repaying a cruelty with a cruelty. As a result of this common acceptance, many people find themselves surprised to read such a barbaric decree in the Torah. They will then, however, look into the matter further and not be surprised to learn that Chazal say that the commandment is actually carried out through monetary means (Bava Kamma 84a). In reality, Jews do not follow a “tit for tat” judicial system; rather, they follow a more civilized one. The issue with accepting the monetary interpretation of “Ayin Tachat Ayin” is that Chazal seem to be so far from simple reading of the Pasuk. It seems that they are not just explaining the Pasuk, but they are twisting it to mean something completely different, which could arouse doubts regarding the validity of Chazal. However, not only is Chazal’s interpretation rooted in the simple reading of the Pesukim, but the popular translation misses the whole point the Torah is trying to make.
In Nechama Leibowitz’s book, New Studies in VaYikra, she quotes multiple sources which prove that the Torah does not expect us to literally carry out “an eye for an eye”. The first rejection is based on the Pasuk which precedes “an eye for an eye,” which says, “VeIsh Ki Yi’tein Mum BaAmito KaAsher Asah Kein Yei’aseh Lo,” “And a man who inflicts an injury upon his fellow man; just as he did, so shall be done to him” (VaYikra 24:19). In Bava Kamma 83b-84a, Rabi Shimon bar Yochai makes the point that if a blind man were to take out another person’s eye, it would be impossible for him to ever fulfill this Pasuk, because he is already blind and always will be. However, we cannot say that blind people are exempt from this commandment, based on the Pasuk, “Mishpat Echad Yihyeh Lachem KaGeir KaEzrach Yihyeh Ki Ani Hashem Elokeichem,” “One law there shall be for you for I am Hashem you God” (VaYikra 24:22). This Pasuk teaches us that the laws of the Torah are fair for everyone, and as a result, would not allow for this interpretation of an eye for an eye in which a blind person could not be punished. Also in this Gemara, the school of Chizkiyah is quoted as saying that it would be impossible to carry out the literal meaning of “an eye for an eye” in a case where a person was not completely blinded, because he would be unable to blind the perpetrator to the exact same extent that he was blinded. Additionally, it is likely that when attempting to punish the perpetrator by blinding him, he may die instead. As a result of this, if one would interpret the Torah as saying that one who blinds should be blinded, it would be inconsistent with the Pasuk that says, “One law there shall be for you.”
Additionally, Rambam proves that “Ayin Tachat Ayin” has to be carried out monetarily through the Pesukim, “VeHikah Ish Et Rei’eihu BeEven O BeEgrof… Rak Shivto Yi’tein VeRapo Yerapei,” “If a man strikes his fellow with a stone or his fist… he shall only pay for the loss of time and have him thoroughly healed” (Shemot 21:18-19). These Pesukim clearly state that someone who bruises another person has to pay for the injuries, which is very problematic with the literal interpretation of “an eye for an eye.” Since “a bruise for a bruise" is carried out monetarily, “an eye for an eye” must mean the same as well.
What is most startling, however, is that the language that the Torah uses for “an eye for an eye” implies that it should be carried out through monetary punishment. Nechama Leibowitz quotes Benno Jacob who says that the Hebrew word used in this Pasuk does not imply exacting punishment, but rather, compensation. The Hebrew word used is an eye Tachat an eye. Throughout Tanach, the word Tachat is used to indicate an exchange: if person A takes something from person B, person A gives something else to person B in its stead. If this is true, then an eye Tachat an eye cannot mean that the punishment for blinding someone else is being blinded, because the person who was blinded does not get anything in return for losing his eye. What this must mean then, according the wording of the Pasuk, is that when person A blinds, or takes away the eyesight of, person B, person A must give person B something in return. This compensation is the money which “an eye for an eye” really refers to.
What is remarkable about Chazal is that while on the surface they may seem apologetic at times, in reality, they are just studying the Torah with the attention to detail it deserves. They reveal that the Torah does not say “an eye for an eye” to promote a barbaric judicial system; rather, it is for the sake of teaching us that human bodies are holy and are not ours to maim. The Torah is obviously not teaching us to gauge out people’s eyes as a punishment, but rather, is trying to convey the great impact of harming someone else. The human body was not made to harm others – it was made to be a vehicle of serving God in this world.